Monthly Mixtapes: Dolla or Less (January 2009)

DJ Ian Head: Dolla or Less Mixtape, January 2009 

I remember ignoring the dollar or fifty-cent bins the first few times I went digging. I assumed that there wasn’t any way to find the records I was searching for there, that those bins held only grinning pictures of Neil Diamond, Herb Albert and Barbara Streisand. Then one day I spotted two Funkadelic records sitting in what is known at one store as the “green tag” section, and, reaching further in the stack, were two original copies of Grover Washington, Jr’s “Feel So Good,” and not that beat up either. And beyond that…

Dollar bins are haystacks that we know can always contain diamonds and pearls, and are truly the essence of “digging.” But it takes effort. It takes looking at a lot of really wack, boring, painful records. It takes bending in awful positions, sitting on floors, blocking the way of other customers, your feet falling asleep. It makes your fingers dirty. And on a bad day, one can spend hours flipping through the cheap stacks and discover nothing. But on those days, buried between two copies of the Annie soundtrack and the Fleetwood Mac catalogue, you come across the one record you’d been after for a year, there is nothing like it.

And this isn’t necessarily a rare occurance – after dwelling in the lower realms of records stores across the country, I’ve found that, like much other art, one person’s jewel is another’s garbage. At stores dealing in high-end jazz, the stack of CTI records minus covers stuck in the crate by the door is just what you need. I remember leaving a Brooklyn store that was going out of business, and there was a stack of sleeveless 45s sitting on the floor. “How much?” I asked. “Eh, ten for a buck,” the owner said, “Those records are in awful condition, I just want to get rid of them.” I had never heard of most of the names on the labels. But I grabbed a stack, and when I got home, they were all very playable, including a few hard-to-find pieces Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow had used on their “Brainfreeze” mix.

Because what dollar bins also allow for is risk. Since many of us are self-taught music lovers, we need to experiment in the dollar crates. They’re like our laboratory. We can pick up a few records that we’ve never seen before, and won’t be burnt if we find out Gary Toms Empire is just really bad disco, or that the later Joe Farrell records aren’t quite as raw as “Upon this Rock.” It was only a dollar (or less) right? But when we grab that cheesy fusion record for fifty cents, and it turns out there’s a gigantic drum break two tracks in, it was more than worth it.

And beyond the hip-hop producer and beat collector, what dollar bins allow for is a way to expand our library of great music for cheap (at least before the reign of the mp3). But still, how would I have afforded my Stevie Wonder, Ramsey Lewis, Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gaye or Michael Jackson catalogues if I was paying $10 or more per title? Sure there Uncle Rob might have written his phone number on the inside sleeve, or DJ FunkMaxwell might have taken a marker to the song names on that Kool and the Gang LP, but the music still sounds great. This isn’t to say those artists don’t deserve their money in full. But many of us would never know the beauty of Ahmad Jamal’s piano without gambling on a couple of his joints in the dollar crate.

This mixtape is kind of a compilation of all these various dolla bin experiences – some commonplace but beautiful songs, some breaks, some obscure jazz, and a little 90s hip-hop with that green tag on the front. Hope you enjoy.

– DJ Ian Head

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